On December 3, 2017, in Argia magazine, Miel Anjel Elustondo interviewed the then-governor of the province Imbabura in Ecuador, the Kichwa Paolina Vecoutere. Now, at her request, we have translated the interview into Spanish (and into French and English). In perspective, it is an interesting read.
12/03/2017 - MIEL ANJEL ELUSTONDO
On June 17, she was appointed governor of Imbabura, Ecuador. She is among the seven most influential women in the region. The first indigenous governor in the country. Paolina Vercoutere Quinche, kichwa.
Your indigenous language is Kichwa.
I remember that my grandmother spoke our language and called it yangashimi, Yanga is "nothing", shimi, "Language" or "mouth". That is to say, "The language of nothing" was yangashimi. My mother objected: "Don't say that, it's not yangashimi, it's runashimi!". That is, runashimi, "The language of the human being". That is what has marked our loss, the loss we have had, the one that still lasts. In the case of undertaking the revitalization process, being proud of our culture and feeling attached to our being and to our language are essential. Our biggest problem today is regaining pride and attachment. Since 2008, the rights of indigenous people in Ecuador have been included in the Constitution, indigenous peopls and nationalities have the right to receive education in their language. The Constitution recognizes the languages that exist and which do not, but the truth is that these recognized languages have been emptied of value for a long time, discredited, so that parents do not want their sons and daughters to learn Kichwa or any of the indigenous languages.
That is still the situation.
I will tell you more: when the kichwas become part of the state administration a transformation takes place in them, they stop speaking kichwa in the formal spaces. Something very strange... We have to do decolonization work - both mentally and emotionally, above all - and recover our self-esteem. Many of our grandparents and grandmothers did not speak to us in Kichwa to prevent us from receiving the same mistreatment they had suffered. A Kichwa speaker has a certain melody when they speak Spanish and that is what is stigmatized! Not teaching the language was a survival exercise for our parents: "It won't be of any use for you and, even worse, if they find out that you speak Kichwa, they will discriminate you." We have developed a legal discourse, yes, a legal framework, a public policy also around interculturality and plurinationality, but the truth is that we have a bilingual education system that does not work, that does not create bilingual students or teachers, no speakers ... that's the situation, despite all the legal frameworks.
It is surprising that a political office like you recognizes it.
There is a lot of talking about a multinational state full of diversity, which includes women, and this and that, but basically, there is no political will to reverse the situation. And I say this with a deep sadness, because I am within that political system and I believe that it is necessary to be within. External activism is as important as being able to influence internally, in some spaces within the system - even if they are "minimal" -, asking questions and raising doubts. Before being governor myself, I was the director of the Ministry of Economic and Social Intervention and I took care of children, the elderly and people with disabilities. In my time as a director, I established a criteria when choosing collaborating families: they had to be bilingual. That brought me great resistance, even within my own party. They considered me racist, I had to hear that my Ministry was full of Indians. And now that I'm in the government, I've had to hear similar comments. "It smells like an Indian here." A thousand such comments. Those are still there. For example, I have a Kichwa native speaking press officer - unlike me - that I recruited myself.
Excuse me, are you not a native Kichwa speaker?
No, Spanish, French and Kichwa were used around me. Later, also English. It was all a process. I went to a free school. I was there until I was 13 years old. Then I entered the French school. I got married young and married a native Kichwa speaker from a very traditional family, and then I rebuilt and learned Kichwa with my mother. On the other hand, our mother has always been passionate about language and culture.
However, you have a strong linguistic awareness.
I am aware of the language and I have a sense of militancy. That is what moves me. I don't speak kichwa easily, but I know the basics. I understand everything and when I have to speak, when I have no choice, I do speak. Among farmers, for example, I speak when they are not bilingual. On the other hand, I am ashamed when I am in front of people who speak very well, because I have not learned as a child, but as an adult, and one can guess that by my accent. My husband, who is a native Kichwa speaker, laughs at me because I don't have a proper accent. At my job, when I have to hire staff, I always choose bilinguals. As for the press office, I appointed a native Kichwa speaker as director, and we have since released all of our publications and notices in Kichwa and Spanish. Prioritizing kichwa is very important to me, I owe it to my mother, my grandmother, my community. I have to be transparent, because the day I stop being transparent I will have to leave politics.
Photography: Zaldi Ero.
It doesn't seem easy to be a Kichwa in this context.
As governor I always wear our clothing, it is a means to vindicate myself politically. I know what my dress means, it is a political action, I am in a space where women have never been present. I am usually with the military, with police officers and I need to be with them to disrupt their imagery, because until now a woman dressed like me has always been considered a servant. The maid who worked in the house of the wealthy. It is important to oppose it and that is why I am always dressed in this way.
What does it say about interculturality? It is a frequently use word...
Interculturality has entered the politically correct discourse. It is so used, so worn ... that it has lost its meaning. In our country, for example, there is no interculturality. At least, not the way I understand it, because I understand it as a division of powers. In other words, interculturality begins when those who have had the means of production, political power, resources, decision-making capacity for five centuries, begin to share all of that. Speaking to others in equality, acting horizontally is intercultural. That would be the ideal, and that's what we don't have. For the rest, the word has been so misused - "I am tolerant" this and that - that it has been emptied and no longer means anything.
One would think that the situation is different in Otavalo.
I have lived in Otavalo for twenty years, a city of great symbolism in Ecuador. Our ancestors lived on the slopes of the Imbabura, totally separated from the cities, when the city was the center of white-mestizo power. In the 80s of the last century, due to various commercial dynamics, the Kichwas had great monetary success and acquired all the properties in the city. The Kichwas became owners of the city and, therefore, we were able to enter the political power struggle and, for the first time in history, we had an indigenous mayor. In 1990, the National Assembly named Otavalo the intercultural capital of Ecuador. Interethnic problems are more than desired, racism is not excluded. To put it simply, the varnish is given, but break that varnish with the tip of your fingernail and racism will show itself there.
Interethnic problems, racism, different identities in the same territory.
I claim identity and to the same extent I question essentialism and traditionalism, since I am a militant in the fight for women. I don't understand why some feel the need of having a politically correct speech abroad. I have to measure the words, I don't say all the words I'd like to say, but I also don't say all the politically correct words that need to be said. There has been progress too. As an Ecuadorian, that is true. Access to free education was a dream until not long ago, a health network, a greater awareness of our rights ... many things that have been done in the ten years since the state has been greatly strengthened. Until then we did not have a State, but the presence of the State, a structure that did not belong to us. You have been building a state for hundreds of years. We are just starting.
I suppose you will be navigating between what is politically correct and what you feel inside.
Yes Yes. And, for example, that is what my master's degree is about, analyzing from a gender perspective how we women survive in these spaces.
You are also studying a master's degree. What is your final work about, if I may ask?
I tell where I come from, I expose my life experience within feminist theory. I started from the feelings and composed the narration of my grandmother, my mother, my father and me, relating it to the theory. On the other hand, I have conducted several interviews, both among Kichwas and among those who are not, asking about their image of women. I reaffirm myself as a Kichwa woman, I look at the neighbor as equals. I owe it to the education I have received. I am not willing to look down at anyone. And that provokes, disturbs many. And that is what I want to destroy, the image of the servile indigenous woman in others. That is my fight.
You are participating in the course organized by Garabide in Euskal Herria (Basque Country). What have you seen, what plans do you have in Ecuador?
I have seen that it is not a matter of one leader, but rather of achieving synergy and finding the way to sum diverse factors within society. When I saw Basque cooperatives, for example, I thought this should not only affect economy, but also political, social and cultural spheres. That phenomenon belongs to the entire community. In Ecuador I would like to create a space within the educational system. I am not used to saying crudely: "The educational system does not work." No. Instead, I usually say, "I would like to propose a bilingual model in Otavalo." And they say yes: "If you have enough strength, go ahead!" And that is what I would like, to build a new model, a true kichwa education, and meanwhile, to rethink the educational model, since ours will not cease to be a colonized country until the educational system is reversed. Our current system is totally memoristic, furthermore, it destroys us as individuals, it minimizes us as human beings by forcing us to take our self-esteem to very low levels ... in the new model that we would like to build, recovering the language will be the first step to recover our culture, our being and our vision of the world. I have that responsibility, that's why I am where I am now.